“The Plastic Age” is Jake Sumner’s latest short documentary, produced by Allday for G-Star RAW for the Oceans collection, which premiered on i-D magazine. Passionate about the ocean, Jake explores how plastic has become a gigantic and potentially irreversible plague on Mankind and Nature. To more deeply explore the disaterous effects of plastic pollution, he presents this Q&A with Anna Cummins and Marcus Eriksen, co-founders of 5 Gyres, an institution whose mission is to end plastic pollution. You can also read Jake discussing the making of “The Plastic Age” here.

How did you become involved in plastic pollution?

Marcus: For me personally, it goes back twenty-five years to when I was in the Marines. I was in the first Gulf War in Kuwait and I saw so much trash being made from that war. I made a promise to another Marine that if I survived the war I would raft the Mississippi River. So thirteen years later I made a raft and I floated two-thousand miles in 5 months. I saw it again, so much trash washing down the biggest river in the United States. From there, I had a chance to visit Midway Atoll, an island halfway between Japan and California. Again, I saw so much trash and, this time, inside the skeletons of birds. So in the span of twenty years I’d been to war and seen trashed environments, I’d been down a river and seen trashed environments, and I saw the impact on living things in the Pacific. I met Anna Cummins and she and I began the 5 Gyres institute. What we saw was that no one was studying the impact of plastics around the world. We took it upon ourselves to explore this issue worldwide. The result of that is the research paper you saw in PLOS1.

Marcus: “I made a promise to another Marine, if I survived the war I would raft the Mississippi River.”

Anna: I first heard about this issue in 2001. I heard a lecture on plastic pollution from Captain Charles Moore. I was in graduate school at the time studying environmental policy. This was 14 years ago and nobody was talking about plastic pollution. I was shocked to hear about this because I considered myself relatively well-informed on environmental issues. So that lead to a long journey of volunteering on a research boat to see plastic pollution off the coast of California and then, in 2007, meeting Marcus and starting to work together on some projects. In 2009 the two of us decided there was a big gap in the global research. There’s a lot of focus on plastic pollution in the North Pacific Ocean, but very little information on the Eastern Atlantic and zero research on the Southern Hemisphere. So that inspired us to start a new organization and really elevate the science to a global level, then use those findings to drive change on land.

So you said that garbage patches and plastic soup are not the most accurate concepts to describe plastic pollution, because these plastic particles sit on the bottom of the ocean which will lead to a plastic bed.

M: Exactly. That’s the reality we have to live with: there’s a thin blanket of micro plastic that covers the planet. It’s from micro-sized fibers, micro plastic particles, nano particles. If you think of the way air pollution covers the whole planet—we’ve found carbon air pollution in the South Pole—micro plastics are now doing the same thing, via wind and water. The reality is that plastic trash in the ocean shreds so quickly. One plastic bag might become ten thousand small pieces in one or two years. That’s our new reality: a thin layer of micro plastic particles worldwide.

Marcus: “One plastic bag might become ten thousand small pieces in one or two years.”

Do we have an idea of the coverage on the sea floors?

M: It’s very very difficult to measure plastics on the sea floor. There have been a few research papers where they have taken core samples. They’ve found those taken in the middle South Atlantic, the mid-Atlantic near the equator, the North Atlantic, off the coast of Madagascar and throughout the Mediterranean. We’re finding micro plastics on the sea floor in very deep waters and near shore and in the Mediterranean. It’s very difficult to know how much because it’s just so difficult to get the samples in the first place. So how much is there? We don’t know. But the fact that it’s there, in most places, is true.

Prevention is the only efficient way because of the difficulty of removing plastic pollution.

A: Yes it is. We feel very strongly from our research and the time that we’ve spent at sea crossing the Gyres that the best and most effective solutions are upstream solutions beginning with better design, better policies and of course citizen engagement and citizen responsibility as well.

Anna: “The best and most effective solutions are upstream solutions.”

Could you explain the map you sent us?

M: The map that I sent shows accumulation zones, which are temporary spaces for plastics. They’re moving around, they’re fragmenting, and as they sink there are deep-water currents that take them worldwide. So let’s take one small particle of plastic in the middle of one of these accumulation zones, once it sinks maybe one hundred meters down beneath the surface it’s then grabbed by other currents that take it worldwide.

So actually the accumulation zones are defined by the absence of currant. In the middle of the accumulation zones there’s not much wind or waves, so when plastic gets there it slows down and sits around and the sun will break it apart and fish will chew on it and make it fragment further. You’ve got lots of currents, especially where it’s really cold in the Arctic, in the sub-polar gyres just below the Arctic Circle and the circumpolar current over Antarctica, these are very cold waters, very stormy and they push plastic away. Along the shorelines, currents along the coasts also push plastics away. In the middle of the ocean it’s so calm with fewer currents from waves, that plastic gets there just sits around, fragments and then gets pushed down and outward.

Can you comment on the anthropocene and plasticine concepts that have been introduced lately?

M: Stratographically speaking, you have this layer of micro plastics that blanket the whole planet. The anthropocene is defined not just by carbon from the industrial revolution, but it really is plastic that is now much more global. It’s a global material that arrived very quickly on the historical scene and it’s very persistent. So it really is the best fossil to indicate the anthropocene. But at the same time we have to wonder, how important is it that we know really what date humankind made our mark? We’ve made our mark in so many other ways from roads, to airports to mining to drilling to shopping malls, there are so many human activities that have destroyed or disturbed the earth’s surface that there will always be this mark of human existence. But the plastic is a good blanket indicator to say, if you find a layer of plastic somewhere in the world, you know it’s the later half of the 20th century. That’s the fossil that is plastic, and that’s what it means to us in a geological sense.

It’s ironic to see how mankind was at first struggling against nature, and is now struggling to keep nature, and at the same time was very enthusiastic with the birth of plastic, and is now much more cautious about it.

M: One thing I would say about the transition of once struggling against nature, now struggling to save it, I think it’s our emergent understanding of the value of nature to us. You know, what was the wild frontier of the last century is now the waste frontier of the 21st century. So we have writ in trash the most remote parts of the planet with our plastic. 

Are you both optimistic about the future?

M: If I accept the fact that we’re not going to be able to clean out this micro layer of plastic worldwide… I know the oceans can clean themselves. I also believe that we also know what the solutions are. I am optimistic. What leaves me hopeless sometimes is when I speak with people who represent the old corporate mentality, you know, that short-term quarterly returns for shareholders are more important than the health and security of people and places. Those interactions, they leave me hopeless. But in general, I am hopeful.